Focusing on making better food choices is more motivating than worrying about what will happen if you continue to eat badly.
What motivates you to take better care of yourself? When you decide that it’s time to eat better and get more exercise? What is it that prompts you to take action? If you’re like most people, what drives you to make changes is the promise of a better you. You want to get in shape to look better, feel better, or have more energy or to be more productive. These are all benefits that you can focus on—and experience—as you work on making positive changes in your diet and lifestyle.
Most people, in fact, are motivated by focusing on the positive things they can do to take better care of themselves, and the benefits they’ll reap as a result. But much of what you read in the media about diet and nutrition tends to focus more on the negative (what not to do), rather than to inspire readers with more positive messages.
Health professionals often put the emphasis on the negative, too, in an effort to get their patients to act. A client once told me that his cardiologist called him “a heart attack waiting to happen.” Another was told by her internist, “If you keep this up, you’re going to weigh 500 pounds.” But neither found the use of scare tactics (or, worse, shocking rudeness) to be motivating in any way.
So, it was interesting to read an article that was published recently1 that discussed this disconnect. The authors reviewed over 40 studies that examined how the public responds to different types of health and nutrition messages. They found that response by the average person was best when messages were presented in a positive light (“Eat more fruits and vegetables for better health”), rather than a negative one (“A lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet increases your risk for heart disease”).
It turns out that health care professionals (who, by the way, are often the ones who script these nutrition messages) tend to focus on, and respond to, more negative messages.
The authors concluded that those who are generating health and nutrition messages need to be more mindful of their audience. Negative messages, they said, are “ineffective at decreasing the behavior they are seeking to curb.” While positive messages create a “motivated attitude toward the behavior.”
This isn’t all that surprising. People are generally inspired to make positive changes in their eating and exercise behavior when they focus on the benefits they’ll reap, rather than on the risks of not doing anything. But given that much of the media is focused on the negative, you may have to practice turning those negative health messages into positive ones, and practice being your own personal cheerleader.
Reminding yourself that you’re “going to be in big trouble” if you don’t start eating better may not be enough to push you into action. At least not until “big trouble” comes….
Instead, you want to keep your eye on the prize. Focus on all of the benefits you’ll experience when you let go of the unhealthy behaviors, and replace them with better food choices and more activity. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel the results. You might feel more physical or mental energy, or notice that you’re sleeping better, or that your digestive system is running smoothly. Make note, and hang on to those feelings. They can really help to keep you going.
Believe that what you are trying to achieve is something you can realistically do. Be optimistic about what is possible. But also accept, and expect, that there may be setbacks. That’s part of the process.
What motivates you to tackle difficult things in life is not only the belief in yourself that you can achieve your goals, but also that the rewards will make your efforts worthwhile.
1Wansink and Pope Nutr Rev. 73:4, 2014.